Jean Reinhardt (23 January 1910 – 16 May 1953), known to all by his Romani nickname Django (French: [dʒãŋɡo ʁɛjnaʁt] or [dʒɑ̃ɡo ʁenɑʁt]), was a Belgian-born Romani-French jazz guitarist and composer. He was the first major jazz talent to emerge from Europe and remains the most significant.
With violinist Stéphane Grappelli, Reinhardt formed the Paris-based Quintette du Hot Club de France in 1934. The group was among the first to play jazz that featured the guitar as a lead instrument. Reinhardt recorded in France with many visiting American musicians, including Coleman Hawkins and Benny Carter, and briefly toured the United States with Duke Ellington's orchestra in 1946. He died suddenly of a stroke in 1953 at the age of 43.
Reinhardt's most popular compositions have become standards within gypsy jazz, including "Minor Swing", "Daphne", "Belleville", "Djangology", "Swing '42", and "Nuages". Jazz guitarist Frank Vignola claims that nearly every major popular-music guitarist in the world has been influenced by Reinhardt. Over the last few decades, annual Django festivals have been held throughout Europe and the U.S., and a biography has been written about his life. In February 2017, the Berlin International Film Festival held the world premiere of the French film Django.
Reinhardt was born on 23 January 1910 in Liberchies, Pont-à-Celles, Belgium, into a Belgian family of Manouche Romani descent. His father was Jean Eugene Weiss, but domiciled in Paris with his wife, he went by Jean-Baptiste Reinhardt, his wife's surname, to avoid French military conscription. His mother, Laurence Reinhardt, was a dancer. The birth certificate refers to "Jean Reinhart, son of Jean Baptiste Reinhart, artist, and Laurence Reinhart, housewife, domiciled in Paris".
A number of authors have repeated the claim that Reinhardt's nickname, Django, is Romani for "I awake";:4–5 however, it may also simply have been a diminutive, or local Walloon version, of "Jean". Reinhardt spent most of his youth in Romani encampments close to Paris, where he started playing the violin, banjo and guitar. He became adept at stealing chickens.:5:14 His father reportedly played music in a family band comprising himself and seven brothers; a surviving photograph shows this band including his father on piano.
Reinhardt was attracted to music at an early age, first playing the violin. At the age of 12 he received a banjo-guitar as a gift. He quickly learned to play, mimicking the fingerings of musicians he watched, who would have included local virtuoso players of the day such as Jean "Poulette" Castro and Auguste "Gusti" Malha, as well as from his uncle Guiligou, who played violin, banjo and guitar.:28 Reinhardt was able to make a living playing music by the time he was 15, busking in cafés, often with his brother Joseph. At this time, he had not started playing jazz, although he had probably heard and had been intrigued by the version of jazz played by American expatriate bands like Billy Arnold's.
At the age of 17, Reinhardt married Florine "Bella" Mayer, a girl from the same Romani settlement, according to Romani custom (although not an official marriage under French law).:9 The following year he recorded for the first time.:9 On these recordings, made in 1928, Reinhardt plays the "banjo" (actually the banjo-guitar) accompanying the accordionists Maurice Alexander, Jean Vaissade and Victor Marceau, and the singer Maurice Chaumel. His name was now drawing international attention, such as from British bandleader Jack Hylton, who came to France just to hear him play.:10 Hylton offered him a job on the spot, and Reinhardt accepted.:10
Before he had a chance to start with the band, however, Reinhardt nearly died. On the night of 2 November 1928, Reinhardt was going to bed in the wagon that he and his wife shared in the caravan. He knocked over a candle, which ignited the extremely flammable celluloid that his wife used to make artificial flowers. The wagon was quickly engulfed in flames. The couple escaped, but Reinhardt suffered extensive burns over half his body. During his 18-month hospitalization, doctors recommended amputation for his badly damaged right leg. Reinhardt refused the surgery and was eventually able to walk with the aid of a cane.
More crucial to his music, the fourth finger (ring finger) and fifth finger (pinky) of Reinhardt's left hand were badly burned. Doctors believed that he would never play guitar again.:43–44 :10 Reinhardt applied himself intensely to relearning his craft, however, making use of a new guitar bought for him by his brother, Joseph Reinhardt, who was also an accomplished guitarist. While he never regained the use of those two fingers, Reinhardt regained his musical mastery by focusing on his left index and middle fingers, using the two injured fingers only for chord work.
From 1934 until the outbreak of World War II in 1939, Reinhardt and Grappelli worked together as the principal soloists of their newly formed quintet, the Quintette du Hot Club de France, in Paris. It became the most accomplished and innovative European jazz group of the period.
When World War II broke out, the original quintet was on tour in the United Kingdom. Reinhardt returned to Paris at once,:98–99 leaving his wife in the UK. Grappelli remained in the United Kingdom for the duration of the war. Reinhardt re-formed the quintet, with Hubert Rostaing on clarinet replacing Grappelli.
While he tried to continue with his music, war with the Nazis presented Reinhardt with a potentially catastrophic obstacle, as he was a Romani jazz musician. Beginning in 1933, all German Romani were barred from living in cities, herded into settlement camps, and routinely sterilized.
In 1951, Reinhardt retired to Samois-sur-Seine, near Fontainebleau, where he lived until his death. He continued to play in Paris jazz clubs and began playing electric guitar. (He often used a Selmer fitted with an electric pickup, despite his initial hesitation about the instrument.) In his final recordings, made with his Nouvelle Quintette in the last few months of his life, he had begun moving in a new musical direction, in which he assimilated the vocabulary of bebop and fused it with his own melodic style.